In wake of court ruling, RTM searches for path past redistricting imbroglio
Updated 6:14 pm, Thursday, August 1, 2013
In the wake of a Superior Court injunction blocking use of a recently approved redistricting plan, it appears current members of the Representative Town Meeting won't have a role in adopting a new map for the town's voting districts.
Judge Mary E. Sommer issued the injunction July 19 against the redistricting plan adopted in May by the RTM's Republican majority, ruling the plan had been adopted illegally. The plan would have reduced the RTM from its current 10 districts and 50 members to 8 districts and 40 members. That redistricting ordinance, adopted on a straight party-line vote, was illegal, the judge said, because it had not been recommended by the Redistricting Committee as required by town charter.
Sommer also said other defects with the ordinance include that it was never sent, as required by the legislative body's rules, to the Legislation and Administration Committee prior to being voted on by the full RTM; the required legal notice of the ordinance's adoption was never published and the ordinance contained errors in the map and text, leaving 11 households outside any of the districts.
She also said Republican Registrar of Voters Roger Autuori had no authority to make changes to the map or text to correct those errors, and those changes were never brought to, or approved by, the RTM as required.
In light of the ruling, both political parties in town reverted to nominating RTM candidates for 10 districts in the November election, although Republicans were originally planning to nominate candidates only for the eight districts they had approved.
What about the election?
With no RTM session in August it appears unlikely a new redistricting ordinance could be worked out and voted on prior to the November election.
"I am waiting to hear what the next steps are, and I am not exactly sure who will make that decision," Minority Leader Hal Schwartz, D-7, said. He said he does not believe there is time for the current RTM to draft and adopt a new ordinance before the election.
His counterpart, Majority Leader Joseph Palmer, R-4, said he stands by Steele's actions regarding the now-voided RTM redistricting in May. "I was extremely disappointed about the legal maneuvering that took place in order to prevent the RTM from arguing our side," Palmer said. "The people of Fairfield should all be alarmed at how their representatives were completely marginalized in the process."
But Palmer agrees that there are too many open questions to resolve the redistricting impasse -- that has lasted for more than a year -- before November and said he'd prefer to disband the current committee and have the new RTM take up the issue.
"Maybe the players will have changed after this election, and hopefully the negotiations will be more conducive for trust and compromise," he said of a reconstituted Redistricting Committee. Palmer said he's lost faith the current RTM Democrats "are sincerely interested in compromising with us" and will continue to use the charter to "obstruct the process, until they get exactly what they want, district by district and street by street."
Jockeying for advantage
RTC Chairman James Millington contended that Sommer's ruling gives the Democrats another shot at regaining a majority on the RTM by creating a redistricting plan that would work to their advantage.
Under the GOP plan that was brought to the RTM, however, 11 incumbent RTM Democrats would have been lumped into the same district -- District 6. Of the GOP's eight proposed districts, five would "lean" toward the GOP, and three would be considered Democratic districts.
The plan the Democrats supported would have had six so-called Democratic districts and four Republican.
The current makeup of the RTM is split between 28 Republicans and 22 Democrats, with three all-GOP districts -- 1, 3 and 9 -- and three all-Democrat districts -- 5, 6 and 7.
Districts 2 and 4 each have four Republicans and one Democrat, while District 8 has three Republicans and two Democrats. In District 10, there are two Republicans and three Democrats.
"Of course, I am relieved an unbalanced plan cannot go forward," Ann Stamler, D-6, said of the injunction. "But I am also sorry members of the body I sit on have, for the first time I know of in our town's history, been found in violation of our charter. However honestly intended the process may have been, it was illegal. The town attorney advised it was illegal; the court confirmed he was right."
Stamler said the time has come "to stop blaming and start listening; take a collective breath, stop casting aspersions on each other, and instead sincerely seek to arrive at a redistricting plan that is fair to all voters -- Democratic, Republican and Unaffiliated."
She agreed with Schwartz that it may not be possible to adopt a new plan during the current RTM term. "We have our districts for the 2013 elections," Stamler said. "It is more important to get it right, not for our parties, but for the voters of Fairfield."
RTM member Matthew Ambrose, D-5, said he agrees with the court's decision, "but we believed that would be the outcome if the plan was pushed through like it was."
He said perhaps the RTM should go back to the drawing board, either with the current committee or a new one, and "let them go about the task they've been handed without any outside interference or pressure from RTM members from either party."
Another Democrat, Chris Brogan, D-6, said he was not surprised by the court's decision.
"The redistricting committee, maybe with new members, needs to take a fresh look at what needs to be done," Brogan said. "I honestly think the committee can reach consensus without outside intervention. The one bright spot in the RTM meeting discussion was the lack of personal acrimony that prevails in some other legislative bodies."
Three Republican members of the RTM were asked to comment on the court ruling and its fallout, but did not respond by the requested deadline.